YI: ‘The Captain’ picks up, in some ways, where your collection Sightseeing left off. Like some of your previous stories, it’s about tourism, about the divide between classes and cultures that tourism starkly illuminates. The new story seems to me to be higher-pitched: it’s so beautifully absurd, more satirical and more sharp-edged. How much do you see it as a departure from you previous work?
RL: The well’s only so deep – if not very shallow – even if I occasionally persist in the foolhardy hope that I might be able to dredge up something new. But I suppose that I’d never written from the point-of-view of somebody having such a blindingly good time in that economy before (at least in the story’s opening moves), even as that good time seems haunted at every turn by something else.
What makes ‘The Captain’ particularly interesting on tourism is that the categories of ‘native’ and ‘other’ are blurred. The narrator fits both categories, and this is a source of dismay and confusion for other characters. What made you write a character like this?
I occasionally wonder if those particular categories and distinctions exert the force that they once did. Nevertheless, the confusion you mention seems to be a source of barely acknowledged dismay for the narrator himself. His ‘confusions’ are not only categorical, as you say, but also spiritual and situational (is he in mourning for his parents or on a bacchanalian vacation with his fiancée?) and . . . chemical, is, I guess one way of putting it.
Sometimes all a story needs is an interesting, clearly defined confusion (with particular emphasis, of course, upon ‘interesting’ and ‘clearly defined’). The spectacle of a character caught between diametrically opposed things or ideas or categories or desires: that’s always a promising dramatic situation, I think. It’s often a pre-condition for the literature of ambivalence, confidence-men, and ressentiment, a species of writing I particularly enjoy as a reader. That writing workshop cliché about every character needing a strong and identifiable desire isn’t really correct, it turns out. What does a character want? With any luck, it’s not only one thing. Nobody likes to think of themselves as monomaniacs, even if monomaniacs provide us with terrific entertainment from time to time (so long as you keep your distance). Does Huck want to free or re-enslave Jim? Does he see Jim as a human being or a piece of private property? Both and neither, of course, depending on which page of Twain’s masterpiece you’re reading. Therein lies a lot of our interest as readers, and part of Twain’s genius is his refusal to resolve Huck’s confusions and contradictions. Sometimes a character can be confused about what he or she wants, what he or she thinks, what he or she is. Sometimes that’s enough.
The story plays on the idea of the danger and fear inherent in travel. I don’t want to give away too much of what happens, but when I first read the story it dawned on me that the real fear of travel is the fear of its meaninglessness: that you set off to have important experiences and yet sometimes you only come face to face with how pointless it all is. Is this my own depressing interpretation, or is this a theme you intended?
Well, yes, exactly. You can’t take a vacation from the self, and all of that cheery stuff. I have a beloved uncle in Bangkok who – upon being informed that I was going to Angkor Wat for the first time – simply pointed out his window and said, ‘If you want to see some rocks and trees and mud, you don’t have to go to Cambodia. You can just step outside of my house.’ Which is a gentler way of saying the same thing, I suppose. Sooner rather than later you’re always confronted by the hollow ring of the enterprise. And that hollow ringing, more often than not, is being issued from nowhere else but the cavernous recesses of your very own self.
But fear of meaninglessness is hardly limited to travel, of course. How wonderful life would be if it were! Everybody could just stay put and feel better about being alive.
In your opinion, does your style lend itself better to the short form rather than the novel? Do you think there’s such a thing as a style that works better for a particular length?
I don’t think that there’s a relationship between style and form. Style and content, yes, and content and form, perhaps, but not style and form. Charles Baxter has said that the short story tends to house impulsive characters, and I generally agree with that. I also agree with Frank O’Connor’s idea in The Lonely Voice that the short story, from Gogol’s ‘The Overcoat’ onwards, seems suited to what he calls the depiction of ‘submerged population groups’, marginal characters for whom a ‘normal society’ is the ‘exception rather than the rule’, and that we might better define the form not by any arbitrary editorial ideas about length but rather by its treatment of its subject matter. All of this rings intuitively true to me.
Your work often lays bare the corruption and systemic inequality in Thailand, and your characters are individuals who find themselves paralysed within it, or raging impotently against it. Are you interested in writing about corruption in Thailand in particular, or do you see this setting as standing in for something universal?
I try to make a distinction between my own impotent rage as a citizen and my ambitions as a fiction writer, such as they are. But sometimes they have a habit of overlapping. That said, I’m not a trained sociologist, political scientist, or pamphleteer. I just try to tell my stories as best I can and then I try to get the hell out of there.
On the one hand, as a reader, I’m allergic to didacticism in fiction of any kind, not to mention a certain form of humourless, self-aggrandizing social realism, wherein the characters are merely lifeless puppets for the writer’s ideas about things. On the other hand, I’m also allergic to writing that doesn’t have a sense of the world’s inequalities, injuries and injustices, and the way that people are necessarily shaped by those things. So go figure.
As a writer of fiction, I would guess that you’re not strategising about ‘representing’ Thailand in a certain way. But I wonder if you feel a responsibility towards showing a side of a country that is often exoticized and romanticized in the popular imagination. Sightseeing brings to life parts of the country that we often can’t read about in English: the military draft, Cambodian refugees, cockfighting.
I feel no responsibility for anything outside of the stories themselves. Though I am driven to anger and distraction by neo-Orientalist work about Asia or the so-called ‘Third World’ in which entire countries, populations and even continents are merely lifeless devices through which a writer seeks to resolve his or her own privileged problems. Which is a funny thing to say, I now realise, because one might reasonably levy that very accusation against ‘The Captain’ as well. So I am a hypocrite.
Your bio says that you used to teach high-school English in Brooklyn, and I know that now you’re a writer in residence at the University of Wyoming. How do you balance teaching and writing? And how’s Wyoming?
I’ve heard people talk about teaching and writing as if it’s some Manichean, zero-sum struggle. It’s not. Teaching is a job like any other, I’ve found, and not an awful one at that, usually, and you just try to do it the best you can. It can also be a form of loneliness-abatement, an opportunity to sit around and talk to serious young people engaged in similar struggles with their art. It keeps one honest; it also helps pay bills. Nobody asks waiters and baristas how they balance their wage work and their writing, you know? And yet there are millions of waiters and baristas toiling away at their fiction and poetry as we speak, I’m pretty sure, rewarded in their daily working lives with nothing but paltry tips and enormous indifference towards their artistic ambitions. I know. I used to be one of them. So I’m very lucky.
The University of Wyoming has a tremendous programme in creative writing, one of the best I’ve seen, due in large part to the faculty and the efforts of its brilliant director, Beth Loffreda. It’s a nice place to work. And the state is a kind of statistical anomaly – only 500,000 or so people live here, fewer than the municipal district in Bangkok I grew up in. I’m generally repulsed by romantic myths about the American West, for all the obvious reasons – chief among them the erasure of a history of genocidal violence – but suffice it to say that one of the distinctive features of life here is that you don’t have to look for space and silence and solitude: those things are always looking for you. I often feel as if I’m in a kind of witness protection programme, or accidental exile, and the landscape has a curious habit of seeming both pre-lapsarian and post-apocalyptic simultaneously. Terence Malick one moment, Mad Max the next. And these things, I’m slowly learning, can have certain salutary benefits.
Can you name one place you travelled to recently, and say a little bit about what it was like?
I recently visited Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for the first time. It was sunny and sandy and the traffic was very bad. I spent a couple of days on the National Seashore watching seagulls fishing crabs out of tidal pools. This was very confusing to me. I thought they only hunted for French fries.
What are you working on right now?
A novel and a collection of short stories. When one’s going poorly I work on the other.
Photograph © Atlantic Books